Since the Global Financial Crisis, and especially since 2010, there has been a significant decline in the volume of commercial freight carried by aircraft. Whilst regional and national economies have been hit by fiscal problems, credit snarl-ups and twitchy consumer demand, increases in the price of crude oil (until recently) have compounded air freight cost increases, leading to substitution towards the main alternatives.
Whilst some multinational businesses have shifted production back ‘on-shore’, there has been unprecedented growth in sea freight. In the latter case there are, of course, both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. As the world’s seas and oceans become more and more congested, one of the distinct losers is a large species which shares the water with commercial maritime transport: the whale.
A recent ‘Sharing the Planet’ documentary on BBC Radio 4, highlighted the plight of whales in the world’s open waters. Since the imposition of controls upon the whaling industry, whale numbers had stabilised and even increased. However, the past five years has seen the most significant threat coming from the eerily clinical-sounding ‘ship strike’: that is, unintended incidents of ships hitting and either injuring or killing whales. In particular, the Blue Whale and the Right Whale have been most affected – the Right Whale was almost driven to extinction by ship strikes in the North Atlantic region.
International action is driving a regulatory approach which aims to intervene, for example, to impose speed restrictions in known waters where whales congregate. But this isn’t a universal solution. Even where it is applied, enforcement is tricky and there is industry resistance as already slow shipping freight delivery times are further extended, thus challenging producers under pressure to respond rapidly to changing consumer demand in the world of ecommerce.
But where is the link to the movie Frozen? Well, this year’s top-selling range of toys are tie-ins to Disney’s wintery animated blockbuster. Excess demand for some of the tie-in merchandising has led to short supply in toy stores and carefully planned production and shipping plans junked. Panicked creation of extra capacity in off-shore production has had to be complemented by the contracting of air freighting options – the lead times are too long to get last-minute products to distributors and retailers in time. Whilst someone has to bear the increased financial cost, the whale might therefore become – at least temporarily – a beneficiary.
But the message is clear: globalised production and distribution involve a complex web of trade-offs. Where negative externalities hit those without a global voice, this adds weight to the continued efforts towards sustainability and the full costing of production and exchange. Whales are a ‘flagship species’ in diverse ecological systems. The planet cannot afford to lose them. And so, whilst your gift purchases this festive season may have been made possible by products having been air-freighted rather than being sent by yet another ship, don't rest on your laurels. Consider this variant on a traditional injunction: whales are for life, and not just for Christmas.
Guest post by Simon Blake, University of Warwick
Books and articles
Nature in the Balance: The Economics of Biodiversity Oxford Dieter Helm and Cameron Hepburn (eds) (2014)
Frozen dolls sell out Express Sarah Ann Harris (9/12/14)
Biodiversity Finance and Economics Tread Softly November 2014
- Why might UK-based businesses be concerned with the plight of whales in the world’s seas and oceans?
- In what ways might shipping firms – and the manufacturers who contract their services – be regarded as ‘good’ businesses?
- Using the concept of externalities, how would you account for the impacts of global commerce upon whales?
- How could you conduct a scientific evaluation of the trade-offs involved?
- Can damage to one species by the actions of business ever be offset by ‘making good’ through corporate action elsewhere?